Memphis Acoustic Guitar Festival: Round Table Discussion

Over the past few years we’ve noticed that those who choose to do the craft of Lutherie as an art form, have been instrumental to the success of Guitar Showcases.

We are referring to luthiers who are still building guitars by hand, employing techniques that are hundreds of years old. Luthiers face a number of challenges. They are usually restricted to building to order, and ordering materials as they go along; stashing planks of wood for upcoming builds and sticking to a schedule to ensure that client orders are delivered on time, and surpass their clients expectations.

This is just a taste of their day to day challenges: storage, wood purchases, shipping expenses, custom jigs, machinery maintenance, we get the picture?. This can be financially challenging for those building just a few instruments per year.

With all of these challenges there isn’t much room for exposure, sure there is always social media, anyone can setup a blog but then again, commanding the know how to the social media and google algorithms is another skill they probably don’t have time to master.

This is where the Memphis Acoustic Guitar Festival comes in. Robert Singer (Aka Bob Singer), the Organizer and Co-Owner has setup a Bi-Annual show where a collective of luthiers can bring a few instruments for potential buyers or Guitar Enthusiasts to discover what they may never find in a big box store (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

It’s an amazing opportunity for luthiers to make face to face connections with people who really enjoy what they do. Nevertheless, it’s the type of show every luthier, who is either starting out, or has been in the game for a while should  consider visiting.

For this feature we wanted to get a luthiers perspective on the climate of the show and we were really lucky to get Luthiers Jason Kostal of kostalguitars.com and Bruce Petros of petrosguitars.com along with Bob Singer for a roundtable discussion. It went something like this…

Guitar Connoisseur: What is the significance of having a major festival in the central US as opposed to the east or west coast?

Robert Singer: There are many people in the heartland of our country that buy guitars, but haven’t had the opportunity or the desire to travel to either coast at great expense (in travel, lodging and food) to attend a major guitar festival. We’ve arranged very reasonable room costs and food costs; in addition we are a few hours from Nashville and St. Louis and a half day’s drive from Chicago. While we are not in California or New York we cover a high population just a day’s drive away from cities that are known for live music.

Bruce Petros: Ideally, a major show would move around from place to place around the country. I’ve found that I would see the same attendees at the shows from year to year. They were mostly people who could easily travel there. It’s difficult and expensive to travel long distances to attend a show and unless you were absolutely planning on buying a guitar from one of many luthier choices, you’re not going to casually just go. Healdsburg and Woodstock are 2 hours from an airport. The Memphis show is a shuttle bus trip away. I think that’s a plus. Memphis is also a major music town. For us Midwesterners it’s drivable. Flying is not so bad, but shipping 3 or 4 guitars in the heat of summer necessitates overnight shipping, both ways! That’s a lot of money. I’m thrilled to get one of these in the middle of the country. For attendees, it’s closer for everyone equally. Long trip from New York to California and back! Besides, we’ve done that. New place, new people.

Jason Kostal: Every new location offers the opportunity to reach new people, and interest a different demographic in the instruments that we build, and the music that we create with them. For many years, the main acoustic shows were held in the same locations, and as an exhibitor, you saw many of the same people year after year. As we have started to organize shows like the Memphis Guitar Show, we have seen a change in the demographic, which ultimately allows us, as builders, to reach a new group of people.

Bruce Petros Glueing wood

GC: What makes the Memphis Acoustic Guitar Festival unique among similar events?

RS: Aside from the location, the venue is perfect. Everything is under air and within close proximity to each other. We have rented 15,000 square feet. The luthiers exhibit area, workshops, concert room, demo room, quite rooms are just yards apart. We even have lunch brought into the foyer during lunch hours so attendees/luthiers won’t have to go far from the ‘action’ to eat! We have superb accomodations at the venue (the Hilton Memphis) at only $124.00 per night (plus local taxes). The hotel even offers free pickup & delivery to the airport. Once you arrive at the airport, the Hilton and Memphis Acoustic Guitar Festival takes over everything from there. We offer optional evening events. Friday night, we have rented the Hard Rock Café on Beale Street and bus people to and from there in luxury busses and of course have Tommy Emmanuel for Saturday night at the Hilton.

BP: I think it’s similar to the other events that were held right at the same motel that we could stay at. That’s a plus. Having to drive back and forth to the event is more stressful. Being right in a town with lots of cool stuff to do is fantastic. Bob organized really neat stuff to do which makes the event more like a vacation than a business trip! The venue was beautiful, not crowded, and fewer luthiers than some had. 130 luthiers is too much.

JK: The biggest thing to me is the location. Memphis has a rich history in the music industry and people enjoy the city for its diverse culture and amazing attractions. It just seems fitting to have a world class guitars show in this city and it is a great destination place for anyone looking for somewhere fun to visit.

Jason Kostal proudly holds up some figured wood.

GC: From the standpoint of a luthier, what was your first experience with the Memphis festival like?

BP: The venue was well laid out and organized. Everything we shipped was together and ready to set up. The staff was friendly and ready to help.

JK: I think all shows go through a bit of a growing pain period as no amount of advertising can reach everyone that you desire to reach. The biggest take away from the first show was the amount of effort that Bob Singer had put into creating a great show, and the potential that was there for future events. Creating a show of this magnitude is not an easy task, and Bob put a lot of heart and effort into creating a show that could sustain itself for years to come.

GC: What was your impression on the quality of luthiers that the show draws to participate?

RS: Great luthiers. If there was a negative (from my standpoint), I don’t know how an attendee could make a buying choice with so many great luthiers. Because of that, we have reduced the number of vendors this year from 80 to 70.

BP: Seemed like a great mix of some of the best builders on the planet and some of the best up and coming luthiers.

JK: I would argue that many of the luthiers that exhibit at this show are amongst the finest in the world. It is really an amazing thing to have so many talented luthiers under one roof.

Robert Singer: Memphis Guitar Festival organizer

GC: What have been your experiences with the people attending the show? Any interesting anecdotes to share?

RS: I find that people in general are very excited to meet luthiers in person and get a chance to talk with them. It makes a buying decision easier when you connect with the luthier.

BP: It was good to connect with “old” customers whom I had never actually met face to face. Matt’s (Petros) wife got to go and really enjoyed meeting other luthiers and their spouses. Final affirmation that there really are other guitar makers out there and we’re not just pretending that this is a legitimate lifestyle!

JK: The people that attend the show are interested in meeting the luthiers and trying some of their instruments. Not everyone is a buyer, but everyone seems to come to the show with a genuine interest in the guitar, and specifically, luthier built instruments.

A Petros in the making

GC: Do you feel that it is a venue that really brings you in contact with the customers who are looking for your guitars?

RS: Yes, we had a number of luthiers who sold everything, some who sold just one, but many 6-9 months later BECAUSE of the show and of course some who sold none. Like every other first time show we had lower attendance than expected. We are now a known entity, have a world class headliner, great luthiers and a huge marketing budget.

BP: If I were shopping for a Luthier built guitar and wanted to see an amazing representation of such guitars, not to mention get to meet the actual builders, what better opportunity is there than to go to a show like this? This is not the only show. It is another one. It’s central location and ease of access and close proximity to a major airport is absolutely ideal. I also like the time of year.

JK: Yes, I feel like there are plenty of opportunities to connect with people at the show, or after the show, that are interested in buying or commissioning a guitar.

Jason Kostal

GC: Do you feel that the show provides a good platform for potential customers to try your instruments?

RS: Absolutely, it’s the only festival that I know of that have several specific areas to play a guitar in quite, indoor areas.

BP: The tryout rooms were quiet and convenient. Some shows this vital tool was sorely lacking. This is ideal. It’s an absolute must.

JK: Yes, the layout of the venue and the ability to play in a quiet environment are definitely conducive to trying out the guitars.

GC: What have you gained in respect to networking by attending the Memphis festival?

RS: I can’t answer that from a luthier’s perspective, but I did have one relatively new luthier who sold everything he had and because of the Memphis show, he got a featured story in Acoustic Guitar Magazine and in invitation to the Holy Grail Show in Berlin and the Woodstock Invitational. This show is covered by all the relevant media, from print to Facebook, to live feeds.

BP: Having Matt’s wife meet and socialize with other builders and their spouses has benefited them greatly. Schmoozing with other guitar makers is always a pleasure and a launching pad for new ideas. Being able to show and talk about our Purflex products in person with other guitar makers helps spread the word about it’s potential. Networking with all the great players that are there is nothing but good for us.

JK: All of these shows offer us the ability to network with fellow luthiers, buyers, and people within our industry. They are invaluable in that regard, and in my opinion, the networking is almost more important and more valuable than making a sale.

Petros collage

GC: Have you met other luthiers who have inspired you to reach out in new directions? 

BP: I am now thinking about making fan-fret guitars and a few harp guitars. On second thought, not really. Maybe some banjos though.

JK: My peers inspire me every single day and continue to push me in my understanding and execution of the craft that I am a part of.

GC: How has the Memphis show provided value for your art and your business?

BP: One on one personal exposure is priceless.

JK: Agreed! The show has allowed me to reach new people, display my work and showcase new ideas to a group of people open to experiencing that.

GC: Have the workshops and concerts been a draw to attendees and a benefit to luthiers as well?

RS: As the festival director, I’ve found that more and more people are using online teaching methods and the workshops are not as big of a draw as they used to be, so this year I am having fewer but higher name recognition workshops. Having Tommy Emmanuel has been a huge plus, bringing in people like crazy before I have even begun serious marketing yet!

BP: I had several customers come specifically to see Macyn Taylor play my demo concert and go to her workshop. I’ve always seen my new customers, while still making that final decision, enthusiastically watch the demo musicians. As a guitar enthusiast, who wouldn’t want to not only see hundreds of the best guitars on the planet but also see some of the best guitarists on the planet all in one beautiful candy store?

JK: The workshops and concerts are added value for the show, and are definitely a draw. Not everyone that comes is able to purchase a $5000+ guitar, but people that attend the workshops and concerts will be introduced to them, and hopefully create the foundation of a future sale.

GC: Do you plan on attending the show ever year?

RS: (Laughs)Hope so, I’m the director and co-owner

BP: At this point I plan on it.

JK:  I enjoyed the show, and intend to continue to attend as long as it is runs.

GC: How do you see the Memphis Acoustic Guitar Festival developing in years to come?

RS: We will continue to be a bi-annual show and plan not to grow any which will help the luthier. This venue could easily hold over 120 luthiers, but that would not do any justice for the luthiers. The goal for this festival is to give the entire central part of our country the opportunity they’ve never had before to meet the luthiers, play their guitars and BUY them. Anything short of that would not be successful. This show is designed 100% for the luthiers and I seek guidance from them on a regular basis to make sure this festival meets THEIR needs.

BP: I see Bob as a person who is dedicated to providing a show that benefits the guitar builder, not his bottom line. He loves luthier built guitars and is devoted to promoting the art. I hope it will continue to be every other year rather than annual. Like Healdsburg and Woodstock, each show will develop its own personality. Bob calls and asks MY opinion about what should be and he gets input from many other builders. This is the attitude that will continue to create the building blocks of an evolving, successful show.

Jason Kostal in his workshop

JK: I see the show continuing to grow and improve, and it will eventually become one of the finest shows in the world for showcasing acoustic instruments made by some of the best luthiers from all over the world.

To learn more about Memphis Acoustic Guitar Festival please visit: memphisguitarfest.com

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